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The Citadel will not allow an exception to let Muslim student wear hijab

By SUSAN SVRLUGA | The Washington Post | Published: May 10, 2016

The Citadel will not allow a Muslim student to wear a hijab, an exception she had requested to the required uniform in order to keep her head covered, in keeping with her faith.

The family of the accepted student is now considering "all legal options," according to an advocate authorized to speak for them.

The uniform is traditional, and central to the ideals of the nearly 175-year-old public military college in South Carolina, so the fact that it was considering an exception to it for an accepted student set off shock waves among alumni. The idea pleased some in the close-knit corps, who felt it could be an important symbol of religious freedom and inclusiveness. But it upset others who felt it would clash with the mission and ideals of the Citadel, where loyalty, teamwork and uniformity are paramount.

At the Citadel, students are expected to leave behind their individuality - and almost all of their possessions - and form opinions based on character rather than appearance. Allowing one student to wear something completely different struck many as antithetical to that mission. And some objected, as well, because exceptions have apparently not ever been made for other religions. Christian cadets have been told not to display crosses, for example.

That the exception was being considered at a time when the role of Islam in U.S. culture is so polarizing, when presidential candidates and national leaders are debating whether the fight against terrorists is not a fight against the Muslim faith, or whether the religion is fundamentally one of violence, made the issue particularly incendiary far beyond the Charleston, South Carolina, campus.

A statement from the college president, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, explained that the uniform is central to the leadership training at the college, as cadets give up their individuality to learn teamwork and allegiance to the corps, and its leaders concluded that they could not grant an exception to the required dress. Rosa emphasized their commitment to having a diverse and inclusive campus, and their recognition of the importance of cadets' religious beliefs. There are several Muslim students enrolled.

(A spokeswoman for the Citadel, Kimberly Keelor, said that a former employee recalled a cadet being allowed to wear long pants rather than shorts for physical training, but they have not found records of that.)

The cadets' commandant called the student Tuesday morning to inform her, according to Keelor. He also told her he hoped to see her on the grounds in August.

The student cried after the commandant told her, said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations who spoke with the family Tuesday morning. "She told the commandant it wasn't fair that she has to choose between practicing her faith and going to the Citadel," he said.

She had worked very hard and had been focused on going to the Citadel for a long time, Hooper said. "That's why she was so heartbroken," he said.

She will not attend, he said.

"A complete denial was very shocking," he said. They had expected their request to be granted. "The father said, 'We live in a land of laws. These outdated traditions violate that law' " that protects religious freedom, Hooper said.

"As far as legal action [is considered], all options are on the table," he said.

Speaking for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Hooper said not granting religious accommodation was a bar to any practicing Muslim and was not acceptable at a public institution. "Obviously from CAIR's perspective, as a civil-rights organization, we're not going to drop this issue," he said. "We're going to view it as a continuation of the civil-rights struggles that allowed African-Americans and women to have free entry and participation in these types of institutions nationwide.

"There are Muslim women wearing hijab in our nation's military," he said. " . . . Whether it's hijab or beards or turbans, to cling to these outdated 'traditions' merely out of a sense of not wanting to change anything is, I think, untenable in this day and age and in our increasingly diverse society."

Nick Pinelli, who just graduated and who set off a social media firestorm when he wrote that the college was considering the religious accommodation, said in a message Tuesday morning, "I believe a thoughtful decision was made by the Board of Visitors, the Commandant of Cadets, and the President. The decision was made after the most careful consideration by all involved and with an immense amount of concern for both equality and reason.

"The Citadel continues to create leaders who are sought after by employers across the state and nation, and this decision is one that focuses on both the importance of freedom, as well as the importance of the 174-year-strong system that has bettered thousands of lives and has created thousands of leaders in the public and private sectors."

Keelor said it was a difficult decision. "Though the college heard from many alumni," she wrote in an email, "the decision was based on the fact that the standardization of cadets in apparel, overall appearance, actions and privileges is essential to the learning goals and objectives of the college."

Lt. Gen. John Rosa, Citadel president, issued a statement Tuesday morning:

"An American Muslim student admitted to the Class of 2020 requested a religious accommodation to wear a head cover, called a hijab, with the standard uniform of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets. While we hope the student will enroll in the college this fall, the Commandant of Cadets, after considerable review, determined the uniform exception cannot be granted. Captain (Retired) Geno Paluso's decision was made with my support and the support of The Citadel Board of Visitors."
 

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